The Rikers Correctional Center in New York City is in crisis. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, conditions for inmates have steadily worsened. The situation has become so severe that U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Carolyn Maloney called the conditions in the facility a “humanitarian crisis” in separate letters addressed to New York City district attorneys. In the last 10 months, overtime pay for corrections officers at Rikers Island has ballooned to nearly $99 million dollars. To compound the staffing crisis, hundreds of corrections officers refused to comply with the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate and were placed on unpaid leave, which was announced on Dec. 1. Although the New York City Council has already voted to close the facility by 2026, it is clear that the situation at Rikers Island has become unmanageable for both staff and those incarcerated, and the prison simply must be closed now.
Many of the problems Rikers Island has recently experienced stem from its staffing practices. Rikers Island has a 0.8-to-1 ratio of staff to incarcerated people, which is significantly higher than the national average. Although a high number of officers may seem beneficial, many of the staffing problems on Rikers Island stem from mismanagement of the staff. According to Slate, the facility has been under a federal consent decree since 2015 stemming from “excessive use of force” by correctional officers, despite many complaints being raised years before the implementation of the decree. The jail’s federal monitor, Steven Martin, published a report in May of 2020 describing how correctional officers at Rikers Island had complained about understaffing due to sick calls and COVID-19-related concerns. Martin noted, however, that despite the complaints about understaffing due to sick calls, the proper number of staff were available. According to Slate, Martin claimed the problem was that correctional officers “were either not being deployed because of a convoluted management system or were unwilling to do the work required,” as the abundance of staff created what he called the classic “bystander effect.” There were five suicides on Rikers Island in 2021, and Martin emphasized that even when a suicide was witnessed in progress, no correctional officers took action. In effect, officers had no incentive to do their jobs properly, as they assumed someone else on the oversized staff would handle any issue they encountered.
Against a backdrop of the jail’s staff failing to do its job correctly, the incarcerated population at Rikers Island exploded from 3,800 to 6,000 between the spring of 2020 and the fall of 2021. The majority of people incarcerated at Rikers Correctional Center are awaiting trial because New York City judges have consistently set high bails for their cases. The massive overcrowding due to high bail has caused previously poor conditions to become borderline inhumane. Those who have access to visit Rikers Island have reported a “lack of access to basic hygiene products,” according to The Guardian, and severely overcrowded intake facilities. Images from inside Rikers Island show as many as 26 detainees crammed into single cells and taking turns sleeping on the cell floors. Eleven people have died in custody so far at Rikers Islamd in 2021. According to the city’s chief medical examiner, the remaining cases beyond the five suicides previously mentioned are under investigation. With the emergence of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant and much of winter still to come, city health officials have warned that overcrowded jails could once again experience serious COVID-19 outbreaks, especially if high numbers of correctional officers remain unvaccinated. Rikers Island has already experienced difficulties attempting to quarantine contagious detainees. Alice Fontier, a New York City public defender, described the conditions on Rikers Island as “unlike anything that has ever happened here.”
The city has already tried numerous solutions to fix the many problems present at Rikers Island. Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo implemented a series of reforms to limit judges’ ability to set bail, only for him to roll back the program amid an increase in homicides and negative press coverage. Judges began setting high bails once again, and Rikers Island quickly filled back up. The city had also taken steps to isolate incarcerated people by releasing them and providing them with hotels. Such steps were only beneficial in the short term, and conditions at Rikers Island have continued to deteriorate despite the actions taken by city officials. It is clear that New York City must close Rikers Island, and there are steps the city can take to accomplish this goal. Requiring district attorneys and judges to lower bail to decrease the prison population is an important place to start. The city must also create safer facilities in the five boroughs, as the Rikers Correctional Center is responsible for holding most of the city’s incarcerated population. Mayor Bill de Blasio “announced during his first term that closing the jail complex on Rikers was official policy in New York City, with the aim of achieving this goal in 10 years,” according to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. It is time to move that deadline forward.
Theodore Brita is a sophomore majoring in political science.